The Department of Music’s University Symphony Orchestra aptly finished off the winter season with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, a work steeped in life-and-death themes. Under the baton of Conductor and Music Director Barbara Schubert, the University Symphony gave their end-of-quarter performance on the evening of Saturday, March 3 to a nearly full Mandel Hall.
Performing the entire four movements and eighty-six minutes of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 was an ambitious choice for the 119-piece University Symphony. In the past, the ensemble’s concert programs have most often featured medleys of symphonic literature from different composers or several different works from the same composer. This time the University Symphony chose one demanding work and dedicatedly saw it to completion.
As with many similarly intense and innovative works, Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 has its own surrounding mythology. One of the most significant post-romantic composers of the late 19th and early 20th century, the Bohemian-Austrian Mahler had a morbid fear of the so-called “curse of the ninths.” Mahler worried that, like Beethoven, his ninth symphony would be his last, and he therefore hesitated to complete it. In fact, the premonitions of death pervading Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 panned out. Ill health and a rigorous concert schedule did him in before he could complete his tenth symphony.
The Symphony No. 9 begins with the D major “Andante Comodo” movement, an extended power play between major and minor parts to represent life and death, particularly the effect of a sudden death in the midst of life. The University Symphony handled the complex movement expertly, making only minor fumbles during particularly difficult sections. The chiming introduction, akin to an offbeat clock or an irregular heartbeat, reappears in the final movement, giving the composition a palpable sense of mortality. Through the preceding motif and forlorn flute solos and bold percussion that bring to mind an imminent execution, the ensemble succeeded in creating a haunting effect well suited to the piece. Much credit is due to Schubert, who like many expressive conductors made her job look more like sorcery than leading an ensemble.
The slightly more upbeat “Ländler” movement in C-major is a distorted version of a German folk dance, perhaps a dance of death in Mahler’s conception. Though the second movement contains more thematic elements than the first, its recurring motifs by no means made for a less challenging performance. The University Symphony’s deft handling made Mahler’s abrupt tempo changes sound crisp and clean. Occasionally the different sections fell slightly out of step with each other during the faster parts, but generally the ensemble stayed together through all of Mahler’s hectic fiddling with the time signature.
The most kinetic of all the movements, the A-minor “Rondo-Burleske”, was perhaps the most exciting part of the composition. Staying in time still presented a minor problem for the ensemble, but all in all the University Symphony communicated the whirling interplay between the shrill string and woodwind spasms and the booming grandeur of the brass and percussion with skill.
Coming full circle from the D-major key signature of the composition’s start, Symphony No. 9 ends with another nearly half-hour long movement, this time in D-flat major. The “Adagio” movement opened with the upper strings playing in eerie unison, reaching several heated climaxes when the rest of the ensemble joined in. After several false endings, the movement gradually died down into silence. Mahler’s musical farewell to the world made the audience come alive. Schubert had to return to the stage three times to receive the crowd’s long-lasting ovation.